Advice for HR Professionals That Is Just Plain Wrong

Career cynics seem to get some twisted pleasure telling young professionals, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Which is too bad for introverts raised by introverted parents. And it’s really too bad for people and their parents who only know career cynics. These young adults are doubly disadvantaged when trying to get their career track off to a promising start.

Once we transition from student to young professional, our career’s single most powerful influence is the advice we get from people we know. And when we’re just starting out, our advisory circles aren’t exactly expansive. So, we take what we get and then we filter the advice through our accumulating experiences.

Predictably, opinions on how to grow a career as an HR leader reflect the advisor’s opinions about the nature of humanity, more than offering solid, strategic insight into cultivating one of the most influential roles inside any enterprise. Successful HR executives have no trouble remembering bad advice they received from people who expected too little from people and too much from HR. Here are three clunkers received earlier in the careers of a trio of HR leaders.

Greg Brenner, assistant vice president of the University of Miami and “The HR Dad”

Bad advice:  In order to be successful, you must instill fear in your people.

I got this advice when I was in the restaurant business. A senior leader prided himself in causing people to scurry around, wiping and cleaning whenever they saw him coming. He would create havoc, not only by his presence but also by barking orders and refusing to be an empathetic leader. But, outside of work he was a great guy. Even though I was just starting out in my own career as a leader, I knew that couldn’t be right. I wanted to tell him, “It’s not about what they do when you walk in, it’s what they do when you’re not here that we should be concerned about.”

The main lesson this guy was trying to teach me was that, in order to be a successful leader, I couldn’t be myself. But, other than a certain level of polished professionalism that you have to bring to work with you, I believed (and still do) that you should be able to be the same person at home and at work.

If you have to be a certain way because the leader is a certain way, it might be what you need to do to survive. But you’re going to have an internal conflict that will burn inside of you until you can find the company that will allow you to be the person you are in your heart. When you feel that conflict, that’s your sign to ask yourself, “Am I trying to survive an abusive leader? Or am I trying to grow my career?” No leader is worth your peace of mind, potential and long-term career plans.

Better advice: Be who you are.

The sooner you can align your truest nature with your professional persona, the better. That doesn’t mean you can’t hold people accountable. That doesn’t mean you can’t get your goals done. That doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. It just means that you’re operating in a way that is true to you. And there are fewer opportunities to forget what personality you’re playing.

When we get into organizations, we’re taught to be a certain way, walk a certain way, talk a certain way. That’s what cultures are made of. OK, fair enough. But we also want people with different mindsets, skill sets and ways of doing things. That’s what we’re looking for when we encourage diversity of thought within organizations. When you can’t be yourself, it’s very hard to deliver that.

Your family should be able to recognize you should they drop in at the office unexpectedly and watch you interact with your colleagues.


Libby Sartain, former CHRO of Southwest Airlines and Yahoo!

Bad advice: If you like people, HR is the field to be in. It’s all about the people.

Many people enter the HR profession thinking, “I’ll never do anything that causes any harm to any person.” But unfortunately, in the business environment, you have to make decisions that will affect people’s livelihoods and can cause harm to that person.

That fact of life came as a slap in my face when I got laid off from my very first job. I didn’t see it coming. Oh, I knew we were having a layoff because we were putting the business up for sale. But I never dreamed it would happen to me. So I took it personally. I had less experience than anyone else on the HR team, which is why they chose me. But, of course, I came up with reasons like, “They didn’t like me.” It wasn’t personal at all. It was a business decision. But it took me a while to work through that reality and move on.

Better advice:  Understand that the business priorities prevail.

In order to help your colleagues make sense of the people priorities, align them with what’s best for the business and then be able to present them in the language of the business. Simply saying, “It’s the right thing to do” won’t work.

People are an important part of the business, obviously, and having the right talent to support the business is essential. Treating talent well means you’re supporting the business well. But decisions are made based on business priorities. In the last 40 years, it’s more and more the case.

If you always put business priorities first when you make an argument for anything, you will always get clarity about what’s the right thing to do for both the business and the people. One of the best compliments I receive, to this day is, “You have always been a business person first, and an HR person second.”  That’s the way I want to be known.

Build a reputation over time where your business-oriented judgment is valued. The resulting credibility and respect from your peers will bring you the opportunity to contribute your perspective when the critical decisions are being made.


Mary Cheddie, former senior vice president of HR for Interval Leisure Group

Bad advice: You can change anything about anyone when you put your heart and mind to it. A corollary to this advice is, “You can work with anyone.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out that that advice was bad. First of all, no you can’t–on both counts. Expecting HR to be able to change a person’s fundamental nature is unfair to both the HR professional and to the employee. A person’s basic characteristics are “hard-wired.” Some people are just a bad fit. And they most likely know they’re a bad fit. They’re just trying to hold on. Why keep them in agony? Save everyone the pain and suffering, acknowledge the facts, create an action plan and move on.

Secondly, it’s a terrible waste of time. Focusing on trying to get people to make a fundamental change in their nature causes you to spend time and energy on the wrong priorities. It takes your attention off the big picture while you’re trying to get people to do things they’re not about to do, no matter what you do.

Better advice: Don’t think you can change anyone.

You can’t work with just everyone. You might be able to get along with them for a short while. But if it’s a challenge for you now, it’s not likely to get any better. This is especially the case when someone is so different-minded (primarily regarding ethical matters) that you find yourself feeling pressured to compromise your own ethics and morals. These people will bring you down. And I will not allow myself to be associated with people whose ethics and morals are less than stellar.

Do your best to ensure that you have the right people in the organization in the first place so they can contribute to the initiatives that will move your organization forward. Not every situation is salvageable, and it’s not your personal responsibility to make the unworkable work. As soon as you can, make the decision that the wrong person is in the wrong role and start looking for the right talent for the position.

Spend your time and mental energy focusing on better, healthier, more productive considerations.


Everyone gets advice–welcome and unwanted–throughout their career. But never more so than when they’re first starting out. Some of that advice is very helpful. Some of it is just plain wrong from the get-go. Some of it simply becomes outdated as time and conditions change the nature of their profession.

After the three decades that I have been offering my own advice to HR professionals, here are my two cents: Make sure that your advisors fundamentally like people in general and that they respect the HR profession in particular. And be ready to change your own mind as you grow and influence others.

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Martha Finney
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at